4-day workweek is only one medicine for what ails us

December 06, 1993|By Robert Kuttner

A MOVEMENT is sweeping Europe to reduce unemployment by shortening the workweek. The movement has supporters across the political spectrum.

Conservatives see it as a strategy to make industry more productive. Unions see reduced working time as a way of cutting unemployment and producing a more humane division of work, homemaking and leisure.

At Volkswagen, management and labor have just agreed to introduce a four-day workweek as an alternative to cutting 30,000 jobs. Workers will get a 20 percent reduction in work hours and a 10 percent pay cut.

In France, the Senate passed a bill offering companies that shift to a four-day workweek a 40 percent cut in their payroll taxes. The hope is that shorter working time will spread available work and reduce France's 12 percent unemployment rate.

In the United States the standard industrial workweek was gradually reduced until the five-day 40-hour week became normal in the 1930s. But the standard workweek has not budged since. Research by Harvard economist Juliet Schor suggests that during the past two decades Americans actually have been working longer hours, in order to defend living standards.

I favor reduced working time, particularly given the shift to the TC two-income family. Although the hours worked by the average individual are up slightly, the hours worked by the average family are up dramatically. Most households find themselves under a severe time-squeeze, because there is no longer an unpaid, usually female, homemaker taking care of children and other domestic affairs.

However, despite my sympathies, I am skeptical that a reduced workweek, by itself, will solve the growing problem of mass unemployment or lead to an actual reduction in working time. It is worth trying, but as one strategy among many.

For one thing, we now live in a post-industrial economy. Fewer and fewer Americans work in factories, or in factory-like offices. Thus, the very notion of a "standard workweek" has far less reach than it did in the 1930s or 1940s.

A growing share of the labor force works as professionals, as independent contractors, as free-lancers. And a growing share moonlights at more than one job.

If the "standard workweek" is cut to, say, 32 hours, my hunch is that tens of millions of doctors, lawyers, artists, engineers, technicians, repairers, consultants, waiters, secretaries, designers, entrepreneurs, caterers, retail clerks, writers and others will put in whatever hours they feel are necessary to produce their desired living standards. Millions more on standard workweeks will take up the slack by taking more than one job.

Moreover, evidence from abroad suggests a very poor correlation between short workweeks and low rates of unemployment. Europe, with the shortest standard workweek and the longest vacations, has the highest unemployment rates. If the theory were correct, it should have the lowest.

Japan, at the other extreme, works its employees several hundred hours per year more than Europe -- and is the one industrial nation with virtually full employment. The United States is in-between on both counts. The pattern is just the opposite of what should occur.

The deeper problem of high unemployment, it seems to me, has two dimensions not quite reached by the strategy of reducing working time. The first is the relationship between overwork and overconsumption. Many of us find ourselves on a treadmill of work-and-consume that we don't really like but can't quite break.

We are constantly bombarded with commercial messages equating material consumption with happiness. We then find ourselves working more hours than we really want, sacrificing leisure time and family time, in order to pay for products we don't really need. If people would get off this treadmill, Dr. Schor suggests, we'd all work somewhat less and there would be plenty of work to go around.

In short, the prevalent balance between work and leisure reflects deep cultural and material patterns. Over time, reducing the normal workweek could send a signal that might encourage some people to modify that balance, in favor of lesser consumption and greater leisure. But as long as the relentless materialism of society keeps reinforcing the work-and-consume compulsion, a reduced workweek will only lead many other people to moonlight rather than accept the increased leisure time.

Second, a great deal of the jobs problem is still macro-economic. If the economy is growing rapidly, say at 4 percent per year, it tends to generate enough jobs for everyone who desires work, and at wages that rise over time.

But if growth is sluggish, unemployment will be high and living standards will be stagnant. Job-sharing can spread some of the pain and perhaps moderate the unemployment rate, but many people will seek to defend their living standards by moonlighting, and will thereby frustrate the attempt to spread available work.

By all means, let's try to restore some balance among work, family and leisure. But let's not pretend that a shorter workweek is the magic bullet to cure unemployment.

Robert Kuttner writes a column on economic matters.

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